EVALUATING ROUTE LEARNING PERFORMANCE OF OLDER AND YOUNGER ADULTS IN DIFFERENTLY-DESIGNED VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS: A TASK-DIFFERENTIAL ANALYSIS
Navigating in unfamiliar environments is a complex task that requires considerable cognitive resources to memorize (and eventually learn) a route. In general, virtual environments (VEs) can be useful tools in training for route learning and improving route recall. However, the visual information presented in VEs, that is, what we choose to present in a virtual scene, can strongly affect the ability to recall a route. This is especially relevant when we consider individual differences, and people’s varying abilities to navigate effectively. Taking various cognitive processes involved in route learning into account, we designed a multi-level experiment that examines route recall effectiveness in a navigation context. We conceptualized that the participants would have to recall information related to the route that is demanding on primarily visual, spatial, or visuospatial memory systems. Furthermore, because there is a clear link between memory capacity and ageing; we conducted our experiment with two different age groups (total 81 participants: 42 young people aged 20–30 yo and 39 older people aged 65–76 yo). We also measured participants’ spatial abilities and visuospatial memory capacity for control purposes. After experiencing a pre-determined route in three different VEs (that we varied in levels of visual realism, and named as AbstractVE, MixedVE, and RealisticVE), each participant solved a list of tasks that was designed to measure visual, spatial, and visuospatial recall of the scene elements and information about the route. Participants solved these tasks immediately after experiencing the route in each VE, as well as after a week, thus we could measure ‘learning’ (delayed recall). Results from our study confirm the well-known decline in recall with age (young vs. older), provide new information regarding memorability of routes and VE scene elements over time (immediate vs. delayed), and most importantly demonstrate the crucial role the visual design decisions play in route learning and memorability of visuospatial displays.